Unusual sights of Istanbul: secret places and activities that only locals know about

Traveling now is difficult, if not impossible, but no one will forbid making plans for the future. We believe that after the pandemic, travel will return to our lives in full. In the meantime, beloved Turkey has already opened up for Russians and is ready to sweeten 2020 with fragrant tea and fruity Turkish delight.

Ideas of what to see in Istanbul never end. From the magnificent mosques of Sultanahmet Square and the red retro tram on Istiklal Avenue, the fun is just beginning. We have explored Istanbul’s secret places where package tourists are not taken: explore the city and collect your unique box of impressions!

Updated December 4, 2020. Since November 20, 2020, a partial lockdown has been in force in Turkey, but not all measures apply to tourists. Shopping centers, markets, cafes and hairdressers are open every day, but restaurants are ordered to work only for delivery. Cafes and restaurants in hotels and airports operate as usual. The curfew does not apply to tourists.

Quarantine restrictions are changing rapidly amid the pandemic: check Skyscanner’s interactive map for up-to-date government guidance before any trip.

Secret places of Istanbul: where to stay to feel the atmosphere

To find the unusual sights of Istanbul, it is not necessary to deviate far from the usual routes

Most tourists choose to live in the Sultanahmet area. It is understandable: the main attractions of Istanbul are located here , many inexpensive hotels, souvenir shops and cafes with famous . Of the minuses – the prices are higher, there is more fuss, and there is less authenticity. Merchants are so zealous that some streets have turned into an endless market, and the walk is accompanied by calls “come in, cheap!” and even “hello, Natasha!”.

Interesting areas in the European part of Istanbul

You can feel like a local and at the same time stay in the center of events in the Beyoglu area . There is equal parts modern comfort and history. On the winding streets you will find the hotel where Agatha Christie lived , and the romantic Galata Tower, and the atmospheric antique shop, and the hipster cafe with avocado toasts.

On the pedestrian street Istiklal, in the heart of Beyoglu, Istanbul residents themselves love to spend time. People come here for shopping and photo sessions, family breakfasts on the terraces, lunches in locant canteens and evening wine in stylish bars. It’s easy to rent a room or apartment a step away from Istiklal , and Sultanahmet’s attractions are 10 minutes away by direct tram or 40 minutes of a leisurely walk across the Galata Bridge.

The Galata Tower and the streets surrounding it are among the most romantic and picturesque in the city. You can endlessly walk and find all the new secret places of Istanbul!

Cihangir is another nice option to get in touch with the Istanbul atmosphere. This area seems to have been created to live in a beautiful old house, to say hello to numerous cats in the morning, to have breakfast in a photogenic coffee shop, and on the way to lunch, admire the Bosphorus from a small cozy park. Cihangir smoothly flows into bright Karakoy with murals, bars and shops of local designers: a charge of inspiration at any time of the day!

Nice area in Asian part of Istanbul

An idea for rebels and romantics is to settle in the Kadikoy area in the Asian side of Istanbul. There are almost no attractions here, but a lot of ease, graffiti, cafes and non-tourist life. The case when you may not be understood in English and Russian, but they will certainly treat you to tea.

The European and Asian parts of Istanbul are connected by buses and metro, but the ferry is more pleasant and interesting

Unusual sights of Istanbul: secret areas, places and things to do

Istanbul carefully keeps its secrets, and the most interesting things are not depicted on postcards and magnets. Hints have to be collected from Turkish TV shows, random photos and the cries of Bosphorus gulls. The puzzle is worth the effort: the secret places of Istanbul are like a teleporter through space and time!

Secret places of Istanbul: the most serial area

20 minutes with a breeze by ferry to the Uskudar embankment and another 10 minutes by bus – and you are in the picturesque Kuzguncuk area on the Asian side of Istanbul.

And atmospheric Kuzguncuk is the best area to explore the most unusual sights of Istanbul

The atmosphere of shady streets with patterned wooden houses takes you back a couple of centuries. Greek and Armenian churches, mosques and synagogues peacefully coexist in Kuzgundzhuk, creative intellectuals love to settle here, cafes serve food from their garden, and ubiquitous cats bask on the verandas.

Popular Turkish series and films are filmed in the area, and Istanbulites love to be photographed against the backdrop of bright buildings – “TV stars”. Foreigners rarely wander here, and this is the special charm of Kuzgundzhuk. Istanbul seems to be changing its formal suit for slippers and appears as it is: middle-aged, a little tired, sincere and still inescapably beautiful.

What to see in Kuzgundzhuk

An unusual attraction in Istanbul in the Kuzguncuk district is the Kuzguncuk Bostanı garden , where locals grow herbs and vegetables, hold meetings and celebrate holidays. On the main street of Iscadia, don’t miss the secret place where Istanbulites go for space sweets: at the Vanilin confectionery, your eyes run wide from a dozen natural fillings. Would you like lavender, passion fruit or mango?

With a box of chocolates and a thermos of tea, it’s good to go to Fethi Pasha Park . Climbing the steep slope is worth the spectacular views of the Bosphorus and the European part of Istanbul. If you are lucky with the weather, you will meet a sunset that you will remember for years.

Tea drinking with a view of the Maiden Tower is the perfect plan after the unusual sights of Kuzgundzhuk

If you have strength left, it is easy to get to the Maiden Tower from Kuzgundzhuk: you can walk along the embankment or take a bus, but it’s more interesting to ride on a Marti city scooter . Just keep in mind that the application only works with a Turkish SIM card.

Unusual places in Istanbul: the most European areas

Nisantasi is one of the most expensive and prestigious areas of the city. The feeling that here Istanbul agreed to moderate the rebellious bohemian spirit, put on a tie and live up to the expectations of the parents. Instead of art workshops, Nisantasi sparkles with boutique windows, organic stores replace carts with simites, and European breakfasts are more popular here than kebabs.

But you can’t hide your character: take a walk around Nisantasi and among the designer salons you will inevitably stumble upon a shop with Chinese vases, Indian incense and Balinese amulets. And among the elite residential complexes, a small square will suddenly appear, where the people of Istanbul drink tea and play backgammon all day long.

It is especially great to explore Nisantasi in the morning, when the narrow streets have not yet been filled with the townspeople hurrying on business. At the same time, take a look at the unlimited breakfast at Bazlama Kahvalti with a million types of jams and branded flatbreads. Or in Kruvasan : here you have to choose from twenty different croissants, there is even a croissant pudding!

Nisantasi’s brother in atmosphere is the area with the telling name Moda on the Asian side of Istanbul. People come here to walk along the photogenic waterfront, eat waffles and drink a funnel or Chemex at Walter’s Coffee Roastery , a Breaking Bad-style coffee shop.

Unusual sights of Istanbul: the brightest area

The secret places of Istanbul in the Balat and Fener quarters (Fatih district) lurk among the washed linen, bright houses and children’s bicycles: life is in full swing!

Men casually drink strong messy tea under the 4th century Valens aqueduct, and families picnic at the walls of Constantinople – the usual life of the Balat district , one of the oldest in Istanbul.

Since the 15th century, Jews, Greeks and Armenians settled here, and when the Jewish community left the city, the empty buildings were occupied by Kurds, gypsies and poor Turks. Gradually, designer and antique shops, art workshops and vintage cafes began to open in abandoned houses: cheap real estate and rental premises did their job – and bohemia reached out to Balat.

The finest hour struck in 2017, when the series Cukur was filmed on the streets of the neighboring Ayvansaray district . Fans of Chukur poured into Aivansaray and Balat, and they decided to make the area more attractive for guests: the houses were painted in bright colors, and the streets were dressed up according to all the laws of “instagrammability” . Today, Balat is the most hipster district of Istanbul: they sell handmade goods, take pictures against the backdrop of murals, and turn old apartments into trendy cafes.

What to see in Balat

It’s nice to just walk around Balat, admiring the old houses and looking at the curiosities. There are also unusual sights of Istanbul here: the building of the Greek Orthodox Lyceum, similar to Hogwarts, the House-Museum of the Moldavian prince and scientist Dimitri Cantemir, the Kariye Museum with ancient frescoes, and even the soda shop-museum. It is pleasant to refresh yourself in the popular retro cafe Naftalin , and for an unusual coffee with fruit flavors, check out Mare Mosso .

Unusual sights of Istanbul: a mosque and the best view of the city

The mosque is difficult to attribute to the unusual sights of Istanbul, but Suleymaniye still kept a couple of secrets

Suleymaniye was seen by every guest of Istanbul – the mosque rises on a hill and is visible from almost anywhere in the city. But they rise to it much less often, the more famous Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia attract the attention of tourists. But it’s even better this way: it’s more pleasant to admire the patterned ceiling of the mosque and walk around the spacious territory without crowds. Here you can also see the mausoleum of Sultan Suleiman and his beloved wife Alexandra Anastasia Lisowska Haseki Sultan Roksolana.

From the lookout near Suleymaniye, a stunning panorama of the city opens up. You can take spectacular shots here or move to the view terrace of one of the nearest cafes: in Agha Gate , for example, they prepare unusual herbal teas and fruit sorbets.

Unusual sights of Istanbul: hammams and souvenirs for body and soul

Hammam in Eastern culture is a whole philosophy and ritual of rebirth. Looks like we can all use the update now!

In the fragrant foam of the hammam, all the anxieties of 2020 melt away. The ritual includes steaming the body, washing, peeling with a special kese mitt , foam massage and rubbing with a luffa washcloth .

A good budget option in Istanbul is Aga Hamamı , while for a truly luxurious experience, head to Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı .

To prolong your bliss, grab a hammam set to take home. A set of bath towels, peeling mittens and soap can be bought at any souvenir shop, but it’s more interesting to choose a Home Spa shop near the Galata Tower. Go down to Galata from Istiklal and focus on the smell. Dozens of varieties of natural soaps wrap the street in a fragrant cloud, and the store also has a good selection of flower tonics, oils and clay face masks.

Secret places of Istanbul: the most delicious dishes and the best cafes

Every morning the Turks have a small holiday, and the name of this holiday is Turkish breakfast . Of course, in big and fast Istanbul, it is easy to find the usual European snack on the run: Mundo Novo near the Galata Tower, for example, serves excellent coffee with croissants, and fresh bagel simit is waiting for you in any bakery .

Crispy simit with sesame is self-sufficient, but always happy with the company of cream cheese, vegetables or honey with cream

A real Turkish breakfast is a whole art, a masterpiece of a million plates with a variety of dishes and products. The classic composition includes eggs, cheeses, vegetables, adjika, jams, olives, olives, honey with cream and pastries, but this is just the base: each establishment experiments and adds its own ingredients. There is only one unshakable rule: all products must be fresh, of high quality and surprisingly combined with each other.

Such a breakfast lasts for more than one hour, tea flows like water, and Istanbul residents come to a feast with a family or a large company. But don’t worry: the cafe serves breakfast for two or even one.

Secret places in Istanbul: the best cafes for every budget

Cafe Privato has a homely interior, organic dishes and large wide tables: their colorful breakfasts simply won’t fit on others. The Midpoint chain restaurant on Istiklal lures you with a panoramic view of the Bosphorus, Ahsen ’s breakfast includes delicious tahina and böreki puffs , and the Ada book cafe has a good selection of Turkish and European breakfasts. In the Jihangir district, delicious food is served at Kahve 6 – there are even breakfasts for vegans and vegetarians .

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